(director: Francis Lawrence; screenwriters: Simon Beaufoy/Michael deBruyn/based on the novel by Suzanne Collins; cinematographer: Jo Willems; editor: Alan Edward Bell; music: James Newton Howard; cast: Jennifer Lawrence (Katniss Everdeen), Josh Hutcherson (Peeta Mellark), Liam Hemsworth (Gale Hawthorne), Woody Harrelson (Haymitch Abernathy), Elizabeth Banks (Effie Trinket), Lenny Kravitz (Cinna), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Plutarch Heavensbee), Jeffrey Wright (Beetee), Stanley Tucci (Caesar Flickerman), Donald Sutherland (President Snow), Willow Shields (Primrose Everdeen), Sam Claflin (Finnick Odair), Lynn Cohen (Mags), Jena Malone (Johanna Mason), Amanda Plummer (Wiress), Paula Malcomson (Katniss’s Mother), Meta Golding (Enobaria), Bruno Gunn (Brutus), Alan Ritchson (Gloss), Stephanie Leigh Schlund (Cashmere) ; Runtime: 146; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Nina Jacobson/Jon Kilik; Lionsgate; 2013)

“Cleverly helmed by popular music video director Francis Lawrence.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The middle film in The Hunger Games trilogy, in IMAX, is cleverly helmed by popular music video director Francis Lawrence (“Water for Elephants”/”I Am Legend”/ “Constantine“). He irons out a few of the original’s many defects. It’s based on Suzanne Collins’ best-selling novel and is written by Slumdog Millionaire’s Simon Beaufoy and Michael deBruyn (a pseudonym for Little Miss Sunshine writer Michael Arndt).

In this sequel, the 16-year-old archery expert Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, who happens to be 23) has returned home safe after winning the 74th Annual Hunger Games (a survival of the fittest game for kids played out for real on a reality TV show, where the contestants are chosen by lottery). Also selected to compete were Katniss’ fellow tribute–the stocky baker’s son, the lovesick Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson).

But their victory sparks a rebellion among the oppressed masses in the Districts of Panem. The tyrannical corrupt figurehead President Snow (Donald Sutherland) fears Katniss’ popularity will spark a full-blown rebellion for reform if left unchecked. Thereby the President orders that the winning duo go on a “Victor’s Tour” of the districts, where he tells his new Gamemaker, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), that it’s bad business for a despot to let such enemies live. Snow orders the couple’s demise during The Quarter Quell, an event which only occurs every 25 years in the Capitol, in celebration of the Capitol’s victory over the districts. The games now as set forth by the Gamemaker have the previous victors competing against each other.

Exhorting, as the first film did, the same virtues ofcourage and sacrifice to live by with dignity in a totalitarian regime, the pic, more smoothly filmed than the shaky hand-held camera used in the original, moves along the same tracks with the same fervor and energy in telling its dystopian fable and sending the optimistic message, faithful to the book, that it’s not impossible to topple an all-powerful dictatorship.

Stanley Tucci returns to flamboyantly ‘talk the talk’ and flash his shining pearly white teeth as the over-friendly creepy TV personality of the games. Elizabeth Banks is pleasing as the overly cheerful elaborately garbed image consultant/brand stylist. Amanda Plummer has her one flashy moment as a Quell combative be a scream. Lawrence grows even more into her starring role, giving the pic some good star appeal. Philip Seymour Hoffman is a welcome new addition.

It’s an escapist fantasy film that more or less works as solid spectacle entertainment. It subverts how shallow is the aim of the district youth to reach only for celebrity and how the games are used by the base Snow to manipulate the masses by using the games as a distraction from their miserable lives. But despite such gravitas, the pic still keeps its pop-culture pulp allure by exploiting its eye-popping Hollywood blockbuster production values to drown out any meaningful subversive political messages.